Bears

Barring surprise contract, Alshon Jeffery faces another prove-it year with Bears

Barring surprise contract, Alshon Jeffery faces another prove-it year with Bears

Alshon Jeffery didn’t necessarily mean it to be prophetic, but events have given his words a decidedly deeper significance:

"I’ll let my game take care of itself," Jeffery said last month as the Bears were concluding their pre-camp offseason. Jeffery is on course for precisely that spot of needing his game to take care of itself, and him. Because he and it didn’t get that done the first time.

Barring a surprise breakthrough before the 3 p.m. Friday deadline in stalled negotiations, Jeffery will play 2016 under the Bears franchise tag and for its guaranteed $14.6 million for one season. If no deal is concluded, the two sides are enjoined by rule from negotiating again until January.

The effect of no contract and the franchise tag is to make 2016 a prove-it season for Jeffery in advance of the 2017 offseason and possible free agency. But the 2015 season was in fact also a prove-it year for Jeffery, and he did not, at least not to the degree he needed to remove all doubt about his physical durability. Jeffery missed time in training camp and then three different times during the regular season with an assortment of different soft-tissue injuries.

Jeffery missed seven games entirely and portions of two others last season, not the sort of prove-it season he or the Bears wanted after he’d played all 16 games the previous two years.

Of course, “surprise” should not be ruled out in this situation: Both Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas reached deals calling for $70 million over five seasons with Dallas and Denver, respectively, and reached those deals last July 15 amid after scattered reports that no deals were happening.

But the Bears were not expected to proffer a deal with more than $40 million guaranteed – which Bryant and Thomas received – for a player who had lined up on less than 47 percent of their 2015 snaps. Accordingly, a no-deal for Jeffery has been expected for some time.

When general manager Ryan Pace was asked last February during the NFL Scouting Combine about the state of business between the Bears and Jeffery, Pace’s tone was positive, that the team was “aggressively” negotiating toward a long-term contract for the wide receiver who already ranks 10th in franchise history in receptions (252) and seventh in receiving yards (3,728) in less than four full seasons in a Bears uniform.

A week later, however, the Bears were compelled to place their franchise tag on Jeffery to block his entry into unrestricted free agency.

Pace’s optimism continued to decline by the time the draft arrived in late April, by noting that “not a lot of new information” was coming out of talks. Jeffery’s absence from voluntary team activities throughout the offseason served only to underscore the gap.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.